In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and widespread criticism of the response from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Director Rochelle Walensky has called for sweeping change in the way public health data is collected and communicated.

This extends beyond organizational change and will require a technical and operational transformation of the CDC.

The goal is simple: learn from the mistakes of the past and ensure that future health threats are addressed in a swift and coordinated manner.

Assessing and devising a response to emerging public health threats requires a clear view into data from federal, state and local sources. And this is where the first challenge lies.

Sharing is caring

Public health issues are complex, and there isn’t one agency that has all the talent or resources to effectively communicate and manage them. It takes a wealth of expertise that can only be achieved through close collaboration between organizations at all levels. And right now, this isn’t happening.

The CDC relies on data from 50 states and more than 3,000 tribal, local, and territorial jurisdictions to assess the impact of chronic conditions. But it has no authority when it comes to collecting this data. This is the first problem that modernization efforts must address.

State and local collaboration is a critical element to solving the larger tangible issue – and the CDC must start to alleviate gaps in the public health system by coordinating across cities, counties and states to develop a national strategy for combating ​large-scale health issues.

It’s not impossible: The agency already has a successful track record of doing so, as evidenced by its partnership with the National Association of County and City Health Officials.

Information sharing among public health entities must be a team sport. Having a group of partners speaking a common data language is the only real way to ensure agencies have the information they need to communicate and make informed decisions to mitigate them.

Congress recognizes this, and has introduced the Improving DATA in Public Health Act, which aims to facilitate secure transfer of critical health data and improve coordination between key stakeholders. It’s a step in the right direction. But given the scope and scale of the problem, additional action is needed.

Connecting the dots with data

Within the CDC alone, there are hundreds of different systems being used to collect and analyze data – and many of them don’t talk to each other. This is the second challenge that the CDC must tackle: data modernization.

There needs to be a system in place that allows for greater exchange of data across multiple levels of the government, including for example:

  • County-level data regarding number of chronic conditions within each age cohort and evaluating the impacts on death rates due to critical infections.

  • Addition of real-time telemetry data for improved model predictions ​(i.e. population movements, social media, etc.)​.

  • Inclusion of treatment modalities based on data available for different ​age cohorts to predict future demands on hospital resources, as well as specific medications​.

Having all partners speaking a common data language is the only way to make informed decisions related to specific public health threats. To successfully execute on the CDC’s mission, the American public health system needs to operate as a single, synchronized ecosystem.

Infrastructure must be put in place to connect the disparate systems currently used to drive the collection and analysis of data and facilitate its exchange across multiple levels of the government in a simple, secure, seamless way. Doing so successfully means getting the right data to the right people at the right time.

Leading with people

This vision for a modernized and collaborative public health system requires a lot of very smart, very driven people to succeed. This too, is a challenge. The labor market is the tightest it has ever been, and attracting and retaining talent is a challenge across nearly every industry. But it’s particularly tough in public health.

Private sector companies offer opportunities to work with the latest technologies and offer compensation packages that public health agencies like the CDC can’t typically match. This makes it hard to compete for candidates financially, but salary isn’t the only consideration for prospective talent.

Finding purpose in the workplace is more important to younger generations than ever, and one of the key differentiators of government work is the ability to serve the greater public good. Few missions are more essential than safeguarding the public’s health.

The CDC is at the heart of executing this mission, and, in creating opportunities to contribute to and advance it leveraging cutting-edge tools and processes, the agency can attract younger workers to jobs in public health that they might not have considered.

Today, many government workers move to private industry. But if both public and private organizations are working with the most exciting technologies, then talented workers can easily move within this ecosystem to work in organizations that most effectively meet their needs.

Advancing the CDC’s approach to technology and data not only serves the purpose of improving public health, but it organically creates a work environment that appeals to the next generation of talent.

Beating the clock

Public health threats can strike at any moment. To effectively respond to them, the CDC must transform into a digitally-enabled organization focused on delivering clear data and recommendations to the public as they emerge and evolve.

And the clock is ticking. As Director Walensky recently said, “Data must move at the speed of need, not at the speed of bureaucracy.” So too, must the CDC. And now is the time.

Eddie Ades is an executive advisor at Booz Allen Hamilton, and former Associate Director at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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